Chasing Joe Biden

Listen to this episode

S1: Slate’s Jim Newell says the first thing you got to know about tonight’s Democratic presidential debate is that it is Joe Biden’s to lose.

S2: Still you’re starting to see a lot of the campaigns who thought he would be gone by now just because of his history of shall we say verbal flubs you know catching up to him. But it really hasn’t happened and I think they’re starting to be confused about what exactly can be done about that and the answer might very well be nothing since Biden entered the race this spring.

S3: The other candidates have surged and plummeted in the polls but the whole time they have been orbiting. Biden he is consistently the top choice of about 30 percent of Democratic voters. So in the 10 qualifying candidates walk on the stage in Houston tonight the real question is whether any of them are going to start generating their own gravitational pull.

S4: The reason this debate is different from the others that we finally have Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden on stage together. He’s a little shaky in the debates. She’s been very strong in the debates. It’s sort of the last untested variable where OK well maybe if Warren’s on the stage with Biden maybe that will be the thing that shakes his support the Biden’s support runs deep.

S2: I mean Joe Biden if you look under the hood a little bit like he has very strong support from African-Americans who are going to be very important in South Carolina and a lot of the Super Tuesday states. So that’s like a pretty pretty good foundation there. So you know things could change. I know maybe he may voters will pay a lot more attention and have some doubts about Biden and he’ll fall and someone else will catch fire. But these polls do mean something showing him ahead.

S1: When you think about tonight when you think about the debate how does that set the stage for what is about to happen.

S2: You know I’ve been thinking a lot about what could change from this debate. I’m not sure the answer is anything.

S5: So I it’s going to be interesting to see how this new setup you know works for for each candidate. But I have trouble seeing how it’s going to dislodge Biden from the top when he hasn’t been dislodged already.

S3: But tonight Biden’s rivals are going to try to do just that.

S6: So Jim Newell is here to explain how he thinks this fight is about to go down. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: This summer. Jim Newell spent some time on the trail with Joe Biden. Jim wanted to see what voters see despite the gaffes the stumbles the poor recollection Joe Biden can have of his own political record.

S7: Did you start when you were out in Iowa. Did you talk to voters about this at all about how they responded to Biden and how they thought about him as a candidate.

S2: Yeah yeah definitely. What did they say to you. It’s just I like Joe Biden but that’s a thing he’s a very a very likable person. So he will say I like Joe Biden. You know I’ve always thought he was great. You know I think he would just return a sense of of order to everything and you know there is something to say anxiety over every waking second of people’s lives. There are also people who would say Oh well I like Warren or I like Bernie or I like Harris but I don’t think they can be Trump. So I guess. BIDEN So I think those are the two strands sort of they’re keeping me alive as one that there are a lot of people who actually just like him he’s known quantity. They think he’ll make everything normal again. And then there are others who maybe he’s not their first choice but they think he’s acceptable and they think that he will beat Trump.

S8: It’s interesting hearing you talk. Because as a parent I am listening to you and it feels like Joe Biden is America’s pacifier and like really America might need to move on to solid food like you know that’s kind of the argument that I don’t know an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders would make. That’s all we’re doing. But it’s like it’s really comforting. It feels good to feel like we can fix it.

S2: Yeah it feels good to sort of imagine that you can just go back to the way things were. And they’ll be sort of a d Trump a vacation of the Republican Party. Raul this will be forgotten everyone will come back to their senses and I think you know Joe Biden himself said the fever might break among Republicans. And you know we’d go back to this collegial bipartisan functioning government that maybe never properly existed but people are very nostalgic for anyway. Combating that is a whole segment of the Democratic Party that feels pretty energized and on the offensive to try and actually push for major progressive policy goals the next time you know they get the opportunity. So you sort of have these two this pretty big split in the Democratic Party. We have one who thinks one side of things is right it’s really time to go on the offensive and go back to these sort of big structural policy making of FDR or Lyndon Johnson. And then you have others who just view this election as as getting Trump is the goal. It’s the one thing to be focused on everything else can wait.

S1: So there is a big article in Politico this week looking at Biden’s candidacy and the reporters who are covering him. Biden supporters were basically saying look people like him and all of these progressive people who are talking about Biden’s gaffes and the things he’s getting wrong they do need to get over themselves.

S2: I wonder do you do you buy that or are you referring to the Ryan Lizza piece that came out really long. Yeah OK yeah. It’s long when it had all these of Biden’s advisers you know all pretty much given anonymity talking about how all the reporters covering Biden were East Coast young very woke from a lot of elite institutions sort of from this this super work bubble that isn’t representative of the Democratic Party as a whole incredibly baby whiners like yeah yeah a little bit. And I think that’s you know I think it’s a fair criticism to say that if you’re interpreting how things will play and how you know whether some of these these statements will will take out Biden so to speak I mean you if you’re going to be a good reporter you have to not just analyze it through the perceptions of your own bubble and the own people that you interact with. So I understand why they’re frustrated about that. But yeah I do defend writing about these things writing about moments where you know Biden gets tripped up over his words and maybe shows his age a little bit as as newsworthy just because his age is a news story just as Bernie Sanders age as a news story.

S8: Was there a particular moment where you were out covering Biden where something got your attention where you’re like No I really think I need to write about this. Like here’s a moment where it does seem like this is more than just a little slip up I mean I went to a town hall with him in Iowa.

S2: You know this was at the Town Hall where he said poor kids deserve the same education as white kids.

S7: Poor kids are just as bright and just as tall as white kids. Wealthy kids black kids.

S2: Asian kids. Oh really man. He took six questions. It took them an hour to get through it. I’m not saying he’s senile you know what’s enough to it. There enough just watching him to you know put out the question of you know is he ready for you know not just another year and a half of the campaign but then four years of the way of the presidency. Mm hmm. And you know what you’ll get in response to that from a lot of Biden supporters is well he’s not as as bad as Trump. Which. Hey. Fair point. You know like that is something to consider if Joe guy is the nominee. But you know he’s not running against Donald Trump right now. He’s running in the primary field and there’s like 20 different options. So it’s worth you know looking at the whole field and you know examining their flaws and examining their strengths and you know that just that doesn’t really make sense to me as in saying that you shouldn’t write about this.

S1: And he’s maintained this frontrunner status from the very very beginning. So I’m wondering you given he’s so likeable. What’s your strategy tonight if you’re one of the other nine people on the stage.

S2: Yeah I don’t think that unless he you know starts getting into it with you I don’t think going after him really directly is going to change much. You know Harris tried and she got a little bump out of it but then it came back and I think among some voters there is a little bit of a backlash to that thinking that she was being unfair to Biden.

S8: Yeah you’re talking about that moment where she really went after him on school busing. It was hurtful.

S9: To hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that but. You also worked with them to oppose busing.

S1: And it was a really stunning moment. And she had a major windfall of donations afterwards but it was interesting to watch that fade. I was surprised by how quickly it did.

S2: I think it didn’t help that afterwards when she was asked do you currently support busing and she equivocated on it. You know so it looked a little bit more. Opportunistic. As time went on.

S10: So I think that busing has been in the works. What is available and. What can. Be. The goal of desegregating is.

S2: You know OK what’s the main strength for Joe Biden right now. The perception that he can beat Donald Trump that he is the you know sort of uniquely suited to do that. That’s where a lot of his strength comes. So if you want to actually take Joe Biden down you have to prove that he is not electable or that you are the safer choice to beat Donald Trump and he is. I don’t exactly know how to do it. That’s why I think that stuff about how maybe he’s these losses Stapp is potentially the best out for people to do that but you know you have to do that without being too nasty to him on the debate stage huh.

S1: So how are you seeing the candidates hone their message to you know sort of turn at Biden while walking this very delicate line of still recognizing that he’s well-liked by voters they’re trying to win over.

S2: Well you’ve been seeing Elizabeth Warren say a lot like she recognizes that voters want to feel safe in making their choice but this safe isn’t good enough for it and they should allow themselves to you know run with their passions and who excites them the most. It gets to sort of imply that that would be her in the way that she presents it. And Bernie Sanders is saying some of the some of some of the similar things like trying to sort of tell voters that it’s OK to get out of their shells. I mean that’s how they’re how they’re positioning it. But yeah they’re not they’re very careful about going directly after Biden. I don’t think that Elizabeth Warren has mentioned his like his name once when she’s saying all this stuff.

S1: I mean you’ve said that the last untested variable tonight is Elizabeth Warren taking on Joe Biden or Joe Biden taking on Elizabeth Warren. How are we hearing that Joe Biden is going to begin to step up his game and really take her on.

S2: There was a story in Bloomberg a couple of days ago about how Elizabeth Warren had done some work for corporations as a lawyer earlier in her career and that maybe the Biden campaign would you know go on the offensive about that. Now if Biden was really going to go on the offensive about that make a big charge you know like right out of the gate they probably wouldn’t have leaked it to the press three days ahead of time so it could you know it could just be a play to put this on the moderators radar so that maybe they ask a question about it or it could be something that he he counters with if if you know she points out some of the less than savory aspects of his background.

S1: Yeah I mean it’s interesting because Elizabeth Warren for like a couple decades now has been pointing the finger at Joe Biden and talking about his relationships with big business. So it’s interesting to think of him turning the tables on her.

S2: They had a pretty big clash in 2005 in the mid 2000s in general when Congress was looking at doing bankruptcy reform which made it much harder to for individuals to declare bankruptcy which was something that credit card companies very much wanted. And Joe Biden as the senator from Delaware had many credit card companies and their employees as his constituents. Elizabeth Warren then was one of the biggest opponents of this bankruptcy reform and she testified in a hearing where she and Joe Biden really went after it. And I think that they’ve had a frosty relationship ever since. So you know I think if they did get into a debate it wouldn’t feel phony the way that maybe Harry’s going after Biden or some other candidates who’ve always gone along with Biden and are now just sort of recognizing they need to take him down. I don’t think you would feel as as forced as that. I think they genuinely have had serious policy differences in the past and have very different world views to a certain extent.

S1: There’s one more thing that might be on the minds these candidates as they take the stage in Houston tonight the results of a special election that happened earlier this week in North Carolina NC 9. This House race was technically the last of the 2018 midterms. It got delayed after the Republican candidate was accused of looking the other way while his campaign engaged in voter fraud NC 9 is the kind of district that has been reliably Republican but with Trump in the White House Democrats thought they might just have a shot here. Both sides poured money into this campaign and it became this thing that both sides used to gauge their strength. Heading into 2020 the Democrat lost correct.

S2: Yeah. DAN BISHOP was the Republican who replaced Mark Harris. He was a state senator from North Carolina. He is famous for sponsoring these so-called bathroom bill in North Carolina that caused quite the uproar there a few years ago. And he ran on a pretty strictly I will do whatever Donald Trump tells me to do forever if I’m elected. Campaign Republicans put in millions of dollars Democrats put in millions of dollars Trump and Pence came down the night before the election to try to push him over the finish line. And it worked. Bishop won by about two points over McCready in this district where you know part of the reason why it’s a little more competitive is that its western edge is in Mecklenburg County also known as Charlotte North Carolina. And a lot of those inner suburbs there have been trending blue in recent years and accelerated by Donald Trump. So the district was still pretty Republican gave Democrats a little bit of a shot there and if you looked at the results Mecklenburg County. That segment of the district got a lot more blue for Dan McCready like he won it by a bigger margin in 2018. But then the rural areas those just got redder. So it’s another one of these classic districts where Democrats think they have a better shot just because of the way suburbs are changing ideologically. But then all the the rural areas in what’s still a pretty gerrymandered districts you know are just getting Trump here and Trump here.

S8: Well it’s interesting because like both sides have reasons to have a little glimmer of hope. You know rebel Republicans are like well we won and the Democrats are saying well but it was so close and it got bluer. Right. So I wonder what that means looking at this debate tonight about how you position yourself and how you communicate to voters. You might want who you may not think you were speaking to earlier.

S2: You know it’s just one election. But if you if you were to look at it and think you know who’s argument in the field does this bolster would have to be Biden’s probably you know you can win over so many suburban voters but in states you need to win like Wisconsin Michigan Pennsylvania you really need to limit your losses in more rural areas. I mean it’s not like Joe Biden is going to win these rural areas but if he can get 35 percent in a pretty rural county instead of 25 percent you know that could be enough to hold some of these states that in the industrial Midwest. So you know it’s just always this balancing act of you know we can convert all suburban voters but how many losses can they sustain in in rural America.

S1: That that’s that’s what she argued for Biden is he can he can staunch the bleeding in the previous debates we’ve seen a sort of litmus test issues emerge. Medicare for All is a big one. What do you think is next. Like what do you think is the issue. These guys are going to be you know elbowing each other to talk about and really like put their stake in the ground.

S2: Well I think there’s one going on right now that’s really pretty important about fracking Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have called for a nationwide ban on fracking. And you’ve seen a lot of the other candidates and a lot of members of Congress from swing districts are from districts where there’s a lot of natural gas extraction being extremely uncomfortable with this. I mean even Tom Steyer who you know during the campaign a couple months ago and has been pretty outspoken about climate change I said it’s probably not realistic to talk about a total ban on fracking maybe maybe there’s a suspension of new leases or anything like that. You can’t you just can’t ban fracking you would just do too much immediately to some of these states like Pennsylvania where you know you need to at least transition to cleaner energy. You can’t just put the fracking ban in place right away.

S8: And this is really sort of brought to the fore by that seven hour climate for CNN and you saw Joe Biden get asked about fracking particularly why he would be taking money from someone who is involved with fracking.

S11: How can we trust you to hold these corporations and executives accountable for their crimes against humanity.

S2: Right. And he actually had a bit of a weasely but weasely is good you know in some of these some of these situations because he said would you do a nationwide ban fracking and he he sort of said he didn’t think it was you know politically realistic which is a you know a way of saying well the Republicans would never let us you know when really your own concern is like that would not be a very good thing to agree to on live TV tonight’s Democratic presidential debate is going to be the first of the year that isn’t split into two nights.

S3: This is an intentional culling of the herd by the Democratic National Committee. Half of the presidential hopefuls didn’t qualify for tonight’s debate.

S12: They didn’t hit the party’s fundraising or polling thresholds but the field is still large along with the 10 candidates on the stage tonight.

S7: There are more who refused to back out of the primary. They’re still hoping to qualify for later debates.

S12: So the DNC says in October they might be back to two nights again.

S2: You know it’s honestly a little bit of a parody of the Democratic Party. I know it’s like you know Republicans say Democrats have all these great intentions about fairness but then they put a plan in action and it just becomes a nightmare and like they are sort of right about the system you know. They don’t want to have a kids table debate. They want to be fair to every candidate. They want to give everyone an equal shot and then they have this strange system where for the first two debates you have all of the main contenders on the same stage you get them there for the third debate and then the fourth debate goes back to the original system like it’s sort of almost a joke of liberalism a little bit.

S13: Jim Newell thank you so much for joining me. Yeah thanks for having me. Jim Newell covers Washington for Slate.

S14: All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Jason De Leon Daniel Hewett And Mara silvers. We are super grateful for Jim Newell but honestly I’m kind of glad I don’t have to be watching the debate with him in the same room. He has rules. I just have one screen but I need to like I need. I’m very particular about like you know when I knew and when I can’t I can’t handle someone else having the remote in. Here like I need to control the information flow I need to control my environment. I’m Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.